For a long time, my pal JJ has taken a strong interest in modern authors who self-publish impossible crime mysteries. Sometimes things do not work out so well, but once in a while an author hits the mark. Clearly the most exciting discovery JJ has made thus far has been James Scott Byrnside. If you have read JJ’s recent fascinating interview with the writer, you learned that Byrnside only began reading crime fiction a couple of years ago. Doing the math, he discovered A. A. Milne’s The Red House Mystery (via an audiobook on YouTube) in January of 2017, went on to absorb a number of authors, most significantly one of my very favorites, Christianna Brand, self-published his first book, Goodnight, Irene (which I reviewed here) last year, and a mere twelve months later, has published his second book, The Opening Night Murders. Add to that the fact that Byrnside plans to have his third novel, tentatively called The Strange Case of the Barrington Hills Vampire, out next summer.
I hate this guy.
Okay, obviously I don’t hate the guy. In fact, in many ways I love him a lot. But he is living the dream, and as TomCat mentioned in his own review of Opening Night, while the rest of us have spent forty years or more in a symbiotic yet somewhat passive relationship with classic mystery fiction, Byrnside has sucked it up with a straw and is now producing work that clearly shows an understanding, respect, and great love of the form without turning to pastiche (like James Anderson did in the 1970s) or mere sycophancy, which tends to produce cozies of the worst order.
After reading the second book myself, I’ll stand by TomCat and JJ in stating how exciting it is to find a new voice which both honors the traditions of GAD fiction and plays with them in interesting and amusing ways. I’ve also been excited to read the second book ever since I learned it would include a theatrical motif; as a teaching artist, I love stories about theatre and school. But here’s the rub: when you read about what you know, you have a tendency perhaps to judge more harshly. I also have to state, not for the first time, that I’m not the impossible crime maven that TomCat and JJ can both rightfully claim to be. And so, I came to Byrnside’s book from a slightly different perspective than they did, and I found that, enjoyable as it was, The Opening Night Murders was a bit more problematic for me than its predecessor.
Not that there wasn’t plenty to love! Easily one of the strongest elements of the new book, as before, is the relationship between detective Rowan Manory and his delightful partner/assistant, Walter Williams. There is such a love there between these two guys, even if it often takes the form of insult and wisecrackery! What’s more, Williams is not a pure leg man or worshipful Watson; he is a smart detective in his own right, and he cuts through Manory’s Old School aura of “classic fictional detective,” which has the effect of rendering the older man as a fully fleshed, vulnerable human being. When actress Lisa Pluviam arrives at the start of the novel to hire Manory to find out who has sent her an anonymous threat to murder her on the opening night of The Balcony, a new play written by her sister Julia, it falls to Williams to question Manory’s motives for taking the case:
- “Are you sure this is wise, Manory?”
- “Perhaps not. There are some irregularities in Miss Pluviam’s story.”
- “Irregularities? I’m dumber than a second coat of paint, and even I realize this is off-kilter.”
- You know as well as I, people react differently to life threatening situations. She’s an actress. They are emotional and . . . and . . . complex.”
- “I’ve never seen you take a case based on indulging in the client’s charms. It’s not your style.”
- “She isvery charming, isn’t she?”
- “And you think she likes you?”
- “I have no idea what the woman likes. I know she is possibly in danger, and she requires my assistance . . . “
- “At least trim your nose hair. It’s really unbecoming.”
- Rowan’s face turned hard. “Williams, where are my mustache scissors?”
The banter between these two made me smile throughout, yet in good authorial fashion, Byrnside weaves clues into the most innocuous seeming conversations, so the First Rule of Byrnside is: READ CAREFULLY. In that way, he reminds me of Christie – although their styles couldn’t be further apart – Brand, and Carr. The structure of Byrnside’s work adheres most closely to Brand, yet has the tone of Rex Stout and a dash of the classic P.I. authors, including Hammett and maybe Ross MacDonald.
Brand’s influence is the most obvious, from the small cast of characters whose point of view we often share without ever really knowing enough about them to cross them off the list of suspects to the bold-faced narrative announcement that “one of these people had planned the perfect murder” that permeated her work and appears here in Chapter Two. However, while Brand’s characters are essentially likable, Byrnside’s can be abnormal and abrasive, even repellent. One thing he definitely eschews as a modern author is any sense of nicety when it comes to the violence of murder. This bordered on the gratuitous in the first novel; here, it is present but its reasons are downright ingenious.
Goodnight, Irene was set in the 1920’s and made excellent use of the period, incorporating actual events like the Great Mississippi flood into the narrative with excellent results. The Opening Night Murders takes place in 1935 Chicago, and while we get a strong sense of how Manory and Williams have aged, I don’t think the period elements count for as much here. There is a plotline involving the threat of Communism, but it felt incomplete, even a bit too convenient for me here. And I have to admit I was disappointed in how little of the theatrical milieu was actually presented in the novel. I was admittedly confused as to the level of theatre we’re talking about here. At the height of the Depression, I can only imagine how hard it would have been to get financing for a new play, let alone one written and directed by – gasp!! – a woman! Why would they risk casting such a motley assortment of actors, including one who had never performed before? Why would they work with such a barebones crew and seemingly no front of house people? (Forgive me: I’ve read too much Ngaio Marsh!!)
The probable answer is that none of these points matter to the murder plot. The first four chapters introduce the characters, lay out the situation and culminate in (despite Manory’s best precautions) Lisa’s murder onstage in full view of the audience. She plunges from the titular balcony without anyone being near enough to her to cause her fall and is dead on contact. It then falls to the detective to convince the hard-headed police that Lisa was, indeed, murdered, and by one of the six people (her sister, the four other actors in the play, or the technical director) who were the only ones with access to the theatre at the right time.
The rest of the novel moves along briskly and bloodily as the list of victims grows and grows. The second murder is something to behold! It is, to my mind, a direct homage to the second killing in Brand’s Green for Danger: in fact, almost every beat follows that of the unfortunate Sister Bates’ death. It’s a superb bit of writing, with some truly scary bits, and although it becomes a grisly affair, Byrnside ultimately justifies the bloody nature of the killing in a supremely clever way.
Again like Brand, the author keeps suspicion hopping amongst the suspects, and as Manory and Williams uncover one secret after another, the plot becomes a nightmarishly complex, albeit slightly confusing, web of events. As he did in Goodnight, Irene, Byrnside folds in a past murder, a trope that I believe worked better the first time, where past events were horrific enough to inspire present atrocities. Be that as it may, in true GAD fashion, the connections between past and present peel back like the many layers of a huge onion until the truth is finally revealed.
This is done in another tour de force just like we find in Brand, in Carr, in Christie, where the detective sits down quietly to present his theories, but Byrnside takes it even farther – dare I say a little too far? – especially since I guessed the killer pretty early on. I say “guess” with much emphasis because there is no way in hell that I could have figured out the method or the motive for this. While I feel that Byrnside invites us to match wits with him throughout, I don’t see how this could at all be considered “fair play” in the end. In fact, by the final confrontation it feels like even the killer has trouble justifying one of two of their actions, given how events play themselves out. While there is no sense of letdown at the end – the solution is as complex as can be, and wholly earned – it might be my personal preference for the simplicity of Christie over the complexity of Carr that causes my reaction to this outcome to be a little less surefooted than that of my compadres JJ and TomCat.
And just to make this even more frustrating – for me and for you: I have an enormous caveat with one point that I find impossible to discuss without spoiling things. Suffice it to say, there is a moment in a certain conversation where a certain character makes what I believe to be a slip that – because I know my Christie – I was sure pointed in a certain direction. And then, this direction was . . . confirmed, so I waited for my little clue to be brought up. And then . . . it was never mentioned at all. Was it a forgotten point on the author’s part? Was it a typo? I have to say, this is eating me up a bit!!! And now, I pass my obsession on to you, like a cursed videotape or something! Please ignore me . . .
In the end, I heartily recommend The Opening Night Murders. Yes, it feels choppy at points, and there are some awkward transitions in the latter third. (One of the worst of these occurs at the most devastating moment in the novel.) But it is a mystery told with reverence for the past without a slavish dependence on it, and with an astonishing sense of authority in one who has come upon the genre so recently. There are some points I would very much like to discuss, ideally with the author himself (hint, hint!), but I will refrain from saying more in order for you to come to this novel with as little spoilage as possible. Suffice it to say that I’m excited that I’ll get to see more of Manory and Williams when they take on a certain murderous vampire next summer!! Stay tuned!